Cops’ Robo-Bomb Is the Moment When a Defensive Technology Becomes a Weapon
Dallas Police herald a ‘boomerang’ effect of military gear circulating into the civilian world
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
The explosive-laden machine which killed Dallas shooter Micah Johnson appears to be the first time a combat robot has been used in the United States.
It should not come as a shock. Military technologies like the explosive-demolition robot deployed by Dallas Police have long been fielded by militaries overseas — and defensive technologies deployed by armies have often, with a few modifications, turned into deadly weapons.
The U.S. military has relied heavily on bomb-disposal ’bots in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and briefly deployed but withdrew a version armed with a machine gun. In June 2016, the U.S. Marine Corps tested a robot known as Robotic Vehicle Modular system armed with a minigun.
The Pentagon has been reluctant to sending armed ground robots into battle, but it hasn’t stopped them from proliferating around the world — although their actual combat record is poor and sporadic.
This is to not count armed aerial drones … which are everywhere and a staple of the U.S. conflict with Islamist terrorist groups. Bomb-disposal machines are also in high demand among Iraqi troops who have to disable buried explosive traps by hand.
Not wanting to get close to the enemy is what motivated Dallas Police to deploy their robot as a weapon. “We saw no other option but to use our bomb robot and place a device on its extension for it to detonate where the subject was,” Dallas Police chief David Brown said during a press conference. “Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger.”
In 2012, the department uploaded a photo of its robot — which David Axe pointed out resembles the Andros F6, made by Northrop Grumman. Dallas Police has not specified the make of the robot deployed during the July 7 siege.
But there are several questions — and possible precedents — arising from the deployment of a lethal robot by a domestic police agency. For one, is it merely a clever solution to a rare and extraordinary situation? Or will police begin to rely on lethal robots more often in other situations?
Ethically speaking, there is scant difference between blowing people up with a remote-controlled robot and shooting them with a rifle. With either method, a person pulls a trigger or hits a switch.
A lingering legal and ethical question is whether the police could have deployed non-lethal options — given that Johnson was pinned in place — but there is no absolute guarantee gas or other means will fully disable an armed person.
Hours before deploying the robot, Johnson killed five officers and wounded nine others — two of them civilians. According to police, he appeared intent on harming anyone who came within range of his rifle.
Perhaps the most important question is that even if this remains a rare practice, what other military technologies will filter into the civilian world — and into whose hands?
“We really shouldn’t be surprised that military weapons return back to us as policing weapons — there’s a long tradition of this boomerang effect,” Patrick Lin, a Cal Poly philosophy professor who specializes in the ethics of robotics, told War Is Boring.
“Our drones have already come home to roost. Surveillance and cyberoperations that we use against foreign enemies, and even some friends, are also being used against our own citizens.”
The Dallas robot bomb “starkly spotlights the thin line between defensive technology and an offensive weapons,” Lin added. “It’s a very short hop.”
Military history is filled with examples. One obvious one — the airplane, which originally flew reconnaissance missions before the French, German and British air forces added guns and bombs.
The robot deployed by Dallas Police was originally designed for more anodyne purposes — to defuse other weapons. With a few modifications, it became one. “This can happen with a wide range of technologies originally designed for ‘peaceful’ purposes, including artificial intelligence,” Lin said.
And if it’s just a matter of time before weapons of war spread back into the civilian world … then debating what kind of weapons we want our police to have will begin with choosing what we deploy overseas.
“Our anxiety over foreign threats have a way of reflecting back as fear about domestic threats, and fear is a dark fog over thoughtful discussions,” Lin said. “We’re now seeing the many effects of militarized technologies on everyday life.”